Melvin knows life – somehow. The contradiction is that Melvin (played by Jack Nicholson in the 1997 film, As Good as It Gets) is a successful author whose novels have an emotional appeal to female readers, but who repulses any human contact or genuine relationship. An ill-tempered, obsessive-compulsive misanthrope, he is accurately judged by another character to be an “absolute horror of a human being.”
An unexpected flurry of circumstances places Melvin in a situation where he begins to lose control of his structured reclusive environment. Worse, he begins to experience true emotion and affection – and is terrified. Melvin runs to his psychiatrist (without an appointment), bursts into his office and literally screams “Help!” The psychiatrist promptly ushers him out. As Melvin exits through the crowded waiting room, he startles the other patients by asking, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
The brief scene does not appear particularly consequential, but it is a pivotal moment, the start of a slow turn toward accountability, interpersonal healing and selflessness. At face value an expression of fear, the question actually presages a maturing acceptance of reality, almost an echo of the Serenity Prayer.
When we see a friend overwhelmed by sudden challenges, or merely saddened by routine and repetition, asking “What if this is as good as it gets?” would likely be viewed as less than helpful. We are counseled by the apostle Paul, after all, to be empathetic, to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn. However, in our own lives, to sincerely reflect on this question in the light of God’s providence can revolutionize our experience and, surprisingly, overcome despair with hope.
We may need, in humility, to begin by reviewing certain simple facts: We cannot know the future. We are not promised tomorrow. Loss and suffering are a part of life. Our current outward state may, after all, never improve. This is the starting point of cold reality – but it is far from the last word! We can take a breath, remember the One to Whom we belong, and remember that His purpose in our lives goes far deeper than ease and comfort, far deeper than security or prosperity. It goes all the way down. To character.
And so we return to the wisdom of Paul, a man who suffered greatly for the cause of Jesus: “…we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us…”
When we, as did Paul, take the Kingdom view, we realize that we have much to be grateful for and resources we have barely tapped. Our confidence rises that, regardless of appearances, regardless of circumstances, we are the very children of God. We are joint heirs with Christ. We are overcomers.
The “Kingdom view” reorients us to the deepest reality, that we are part of a marvelous Something, vast, glorious, and completely outside the senses. Observable circumstances may well be grim, but we are anchored in a Kingdom of invisible light. We are owned and cared for by a Father whose hand is ever upon our lives – and adversity cannot diminish that.
We may, like Melvin, cry out in fear as we begin to sense that life is no longer under our control, but, with patience and faith, we can rest in knowing this: God will have His way, and in the end we will stand in wonder at the transformation (and peace!) He has brought into our lives in the midst of the very difficulty we had thought would crush us. This may well be what brings the opportunity to answer a very different and most wonderful question from those around us: “What is the reason for the hope I see in you?” And that is as good as it gets.
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Related passages from the Scriptures:
Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through Him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
And who will harm you if you are deeply committed to what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.
1 Peter 3:13-15
Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.
By faith he left Egypt behind, not being afraid of the king’s anger, for Moses persevered as one who sees Him who is invisible.
Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.
I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.
All those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs—heirs of God and coheirs with Christ—seeing that we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.
Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. According to His great mercy, He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, uncorrupted, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. You are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials so that the genuineness of your faith—more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. You love Him, though you have not seen Him. And though not seeing Him now, you believe in Him and rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
1 Peter 1:3-9
No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore strengthen your tired hands and weakened knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed instead.
Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.
The Serenity Prayer (original full version)
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.